Craig Lewis, UTILITY DIVE
Craig Lewis is the executive director of Clean Coalition, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and a modern grid through technical, policy, and project development expertise.
Since 2017, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest utility, has racked up more than $30 billion in liabilities for wildfire-related damages caused by its equipment. In January 2019, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with the goal of shedding these liabilities.
This grave situation also represents a golden opportunity for the Golden State.
Experts have been weighing in on what should become of PG&E. Ideas include making PG&E a public authority controlled by the state, breaking it up into municipal utilities, and making it a fully deregulated utility.
But there’s a better solution, one that should be applied to all the state’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs): require the utilities to divest their transmission assets. This solution avoids another utility bailout, protects utility customers from rate increases and wildfire risks, and fixes a major obstacle to California’s zero-emission, clean energy future.
A broken business model
The current utility business model is fundamentally broken and needs to change. IOUs now earn a guaranteed rate of return on infrastructure investments, which incentivizes them to build more transmission infrastructure and has led to out-of-control transmission costs around the country.
Because transmission costs are the fastest-growing part of electricity bills, it could soon cost more to deliver energy than to generate it. And it’s worse than it looks.
The capital costs of transmission infrastructure, high as they are, represent a fraction of total transmission costs. Operations and maintenance (O&M) and returns on investments drive up transmission costs significantly over the life of these assets, with those excessive costs borne by ratepayers.